Witness in Jerusalem

By Helena Koumi

Before I came to Palestine-Israel, I had no way of knowing that the three-week war in Gaza was just around the corner. At the same time, being here has made me realize that there is an ongoing war being fought every day. It happens in Jerusalem, in Gaza, in the West Bank, and also in Israel.

The war is partly about information – about being able to tell your side of the story. But it is also a low-intensity war to create “facts on the ground.” Such low-level warfare is part of daily life here in Jerusalem, both the western Israeli part and the Palestinian part in the east.

My name is Helena. I live in Stockholm where I work for a Christian peace organization, the Swedish Fellowship of Reconciliation. I came here to Jerusalem in November. I am Swedish by nationality, but, thanks to my father, also Greek Cypriot. It’s a connection I’m very proud of and helps explain why I am Greek Orthodox. When I was growing up, we went every second summer to Cyprus, so the Greek culture and the Orthodox tradition are close to me.

My decision to work for peace comes partly from spending so much of my youth time on a Mediterranean island divided by war. In Cyprus, the green line dividing the Greek side from the Turkish runs right through the capital, Nicosia. Now I am here in Jerusalem, another divided city plagued by conflict.
What brought me here? Why did I choose to be part of the Ecumenical Accompaniment Program in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI), a project sponsored by the World Council of Churches? Mainly it was the combination of the project’s Christian values and the possibility of doing very direct work for peace in a place of profound division that attracted me. I also wanted to work closely with people in the midst of ongoing conflict. I had no doubt that it would be a very enriching experience, and it has definitely been that.

The EAPPI has volunteers from different countries working for three-month stints in six locations in Jerusalem and the West Bank. We seek to provide an international nonviolent presence, offering a degree of greater protection to people under military occupation. We do this mainly through reporting and monitoring, for example at military checkpoints, while providing solidarity with people struggling against the Israeli occupation, and through public advocacy.

I arrived in Jerusalem not long before Israel started its attack on Gaza. During the first pre-war weeks, we received many calls for emergency help and witnessed several house demolitions. We also saw a family being evicted from their house of over 50 years, a house that, since 2001, the family had been forced to share with settlers. The story of that family – the family Al-Kurd – has affected me deeply.

The Al-Kurd family are refugees from 1948, when hundreds of thousands Palestinians were forced to leave their home when the state of Israel was formed. The United Nations gave the Al-Kurds a home in the east Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheik Jarrah. Orthodox Jews now claim ownership, based on a document from the Ottoman period, to the house and the land it stands on. Though the legality of the claim is disputed, in 2001 a settler family moved into one wing of the house and then demanded that the Al-Kurd family pay them rent. The family refused, and since then they have been engaged in a long legal battle.

In the beginning of November, one week after my arrival, the family was evicted from the house. After that, the family moved into a tent on nearby land owned by Palestinians. Two weeks after the eviction, the father of the family, Mohammed Al-Kurd, died of a heart attack. So far the Israeli military has demolished the tent four times – a tent is a building, according to Israeli law, and the tent has no building permit. (In fact permits are almost impossible to obtain.) Many of the houses in east Jerusalem and the West Bank are regarded by Israel as illegal.

The mother in the family, Um Kamel, continues her struggle for her house with backup from the community and international groups such as EAPPI. She is one of the strongest women I have ever met. We visit her several times a week. Just today she was fined. When demolitions are carried out, the family living in the house (or tent!) is ordered to pay the demolition cost. Even so, Um Kamel was relieved that the court did not order another demolition of the tent.

When I am speaking to Palestinians from the West Bank about their situation, the word that I hear most frequently is “trapped.” Because of the wall that Israel has built, people cannot move around as they like. Each passage through different districts requires a permit, and the roads are blocked by military checkpoints. A permit is required for health care, to get to work, go to school, or to visit relatives. Only if you are a Palestinian with an Israeli passport or a resident of Jerusalem can you enter Israel and Jerusalem without an extra permit. On the other hand, you cannot go to all areas in the West Bank with an Israeli passport. This policy applies to Israelis as well as Palestinians.

Ashraf is one of the security guards at the Augusta Victoria Hospital, near where I live. He is 24 years old and lives in a neighborhood just outside Jerusalem. This means he has no Jerusalem ID, and thus must obtain permission to pass the checkpoint to get to work. The hospital helps him with the issuance of a permit, but it’s only valid for Augusta Victoria Hospital. This means that he is not allowed into the Old City or to any other place in Jerusalem. He can move only between his home and workplace. He feels so trapped, he tells me, that his main desire is to find a girl from another country to fall in love with so he can move to her country. He sees that as his only chance to get more freedom and to travel.

I have also met Israelis who feel trapped. Last week at the checkpoint between Jerusalem and Ramallah, I met a 20-year-old soldier, Shaul, who was behaving differently than I am used to soldiers behaving. When my colleague and I came, he waved at us and made funny faces. Considering that soldiers are ordered by their officers not to talk to us, we were very surprised. We were also surprised to see him opening up the turnstiles to let people pass when we asked him to, and even more so when he played some music on his mobile phone and started to dance in the booth.
We thought he was crazy at first, but later realized that he was probably the most “normal” soldier we had met so far. Every time Shaul opened the window of the booth to talk to us, he got a call from his officers telling him not to speak to us. Even so, he repeatedly violated the orders. When I asked him what would happen to him for violating orders, he answered, “Oh, they’re pretty rough.”

He said he feels trapped. “How long do I have to be here? I hate it. I don’t want to do this job.” He waved at the Palestinians and shouted. “Hey guys, I’m with you! Be strong!” He still has a year to go and desperately wants to get out.

Fortunately, his captivity is limited in time. It won’t last forever. For Palestinians, there is no end in sight.
Military service is mandatory for all Israelis, both women and men. Israel is the only country in the world with this requirement. Men do it for three years, women for two. But there are exceptions: ultra-religious persons, disabled people, married women, and Palestinians with Israeli citizenship and others.

Israel is a highly militarized society. It is no surprise to see soldiers and police armed with machine guns on the streets. Restaurants and cafes have security guards checking people’s bags, and the bus stations have metal detectors and X-ray machines, just like airports. They are afraid of suicide bombs. A whole generation of Israelis are marked by the suicide bombs that increasingly have become a part of their lives since the start of the Second Intifada, the Palestinian resistance to occupation that started in 2000.

In 2002, Israel started building a “separation” wall, arguing it was necessary for security. Though there are fewer suicide bombings, to what extent the wall has made Israel safer is a matter of debate. What is certain is that the wall has many other consequences. It separates families, it justifies the demolition of more Palestinian homes, it restricts movement, and impedes access to education and health care. The wall also has environmental effects and has resulted in gravely damaging the economy of the occupied territories. Almost 80 percent of the wall stands on Palestinian land – itself illegal, according to international law.

My team and I have been in an area on the outskirts of Jerusalem called Abu Dis several times. The separation wall climbs around the hilltops. There are several military checkpoints in the area that people have to pass through every day.

The Al-Quds University (Jerusalem University), where 10,000 students are registered, is in Abu Dis. Students come from many places to attend this university, the only Palestinian university in the Jerusalem area. Many of them have to pass through the Container checkpoint on their way to and from the university, a checkpoint one can only pass through by car. My team of Ecumenical Accompaniers goes there once a week to monitor the behavior of the soldiers.

They often stop cars; but on a recent day when we were present, a girl working at the university told us that she wasn’t stopped at all and that the lines are shorter when we are there. Even though I know that the work I am doing cannot change the situation for people in the long run, I am happy to hear that our work helps to some extent. That is really all I dare hope for.
Hamam is a 16-year-old boy from Abu Dis. When I met him the first time, or rather saw him, he was lying in a bed at the intensive care unit at the Maqased hospital a few blocks from where we live. He was badly injured after he had been shot with rubber bullets by an Israeli soldier at close range because he had stood in the front line in a peaceful demonstration protesting the war in Gaza.

I did not know Hamam before, but our team was asked to go and see him because his family had problems with getting permits to come into Jerusalem. Even if you have a son or brother in the intensive care unit, you do not automatically qualify to get a permit to Jerusalem to visit your family member.
Hamam was lying there, unconscious and connected to all these machines that helped him perform life’s most basic tasks. The doctors did not know if he would survive; and, if he did, whether his speech and understanding might be impaired, or whether he might suffer partial paralysis. Since then we have been going back several times a week and witnessed the miracle of Hamam’s recovery.

When I saw him two days ago, three weeks after he was shot, he had just been moved to a rehabilitation center close to Bethlehem, where his family can easily visit him. He was sitting in a wheelchair, smiling. Even though he couldn’t express more than sounds for yes and no, he understood most of what I said in English. His right arm is paralyzed, but now he can move his right leg a little. Already he is much better than the doctors anticipated.

However he is depressed, realizing what has happened to him and how that will affect his life. I have become so fond of this beautiful boy and his family that it really hurts me to have to leave them to go back home and to know I will not be able to remain close.

If the situation was already bad in Jerusalem and the West Bank, it didn’t get better with the war in Gaza. Every Friday, Jerusalem has been closed for at least 36 hours for people from the West Bank under 50 years of age. There have been thousands of police and military on the streets. Jerusalem looked like a city under siege during those days: roads closed at military check points and the Old City completely closed off at midday, the Muslim prayer time.

Several demonstrations have been held – some with rock-throwing at the police and soldiers, others completely peaceful, although even these were broken up violently by the police. I have been pushed rather brutally by police while accompanying a demonstration.

The war affects everyone – Israelis, Palestinians and, of course, volunteers like me who live and work here. It’s so close, but yet so far away.
Most of the Israelis support the war. When I speak with my Israeli friends about it, I cannot understand why. I cannot understand how you can reach peace by means of war. On both sides, it will only bring only more death and destruction. The consequences stretch far into the future. Palestinians who spoke about peace and reconciliation with the Israelis before the war now express hatred and distrust of all Israelis. It’s so very sad, yet at the same time understandable.

During these difficult times, I am so glad for the churches in this land. I have attended several church services – Orthodox, Catholic, Lutheran and mixed – that prayed for Gaza. The feeling of belonging and sisterhood with my fellow Christians give me peace.

As an Orthodox Christian, I am proud to know that most Palestinian Christians belong to my church, and I am glad that one of the tasks my project assigns to volunteers is to participate in church services and to stand side by side with Christian Palestinians. I have been to Arabic liturgies in Orthodox churches and felt a deep sense of belonging, even without understanding any of the words.

Soon I go home to Sweden. My experience here is coming to an end. I will leave with very mixed feelings. I both want to stay and to leave. It is not an easy place to be for a long time. Jerusalem – the holy city – is a tense place to live. But I think I have much more to give and to do here. I have become very close to the people I work with and those I have met during these three months.
Yet when I go home, my life will have been greatly enriched. I will have the responsibility to share my experiences and stories with people around me, and I hope they will spread like rings on the water.    ❖

Winter 2009 issue of In Communion / IC 52